Making progress on veterans' suicide prevention bill

What a difference a few weeks makes. An important suicide prevention bill for veterans, derailed at the end of the last Congress, is back on the fast track. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month and the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs just last week. Now, we are counting on the Senate to act quickly and send it to the president.

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This legislation is desperately needed; an estimated 22 veterans of all ages die by suicide every day. Young veterans are particularly at risk with those receiving Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare services dying by suicide more often than both active-duty troops and civilians, according to VA data.

And for those warriors returning to civilian life, estimates suggest that many face the signature health issues of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom: traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of those veterans was Clay Hunt, the Marine for whom the legislation is named.

Hunt earned a Purple Heart fighting in Iraq, and later deployed to southern Afghanistan. A war fighter, his story is all too sad and familiar. According to his mother, he was diagnosed with PTSD while still on active duty. Unfortunately, after being honorably discharged, he did not receive the care or support he needed, and died by suicide in 2011.

The SAV Act will address obstacles in veterans' access to timely and appropriate services. Under the bill, special care and attention will be given to service personnel transitioning from active duty to veteran status through community outreach and peer support groups. To make recruitment of mental health professionals easier, new incentives will be offered to psychiatrists who agree to serve at the VA. And both Department of Defense and VA suicide-prevention programs will be evaluated each year to increase accountability and improve care.

The stigma associated with any brain-related issue, whether TBI, PTSD, depression or other mental health conditions, may also be a barrier to seeking care. Veterans may believe that TBI and PTSD are signs of mental weakness; that these afflictions last a lifetime; and that they are untreatable.

All of these assumptions are false. TBI and PTSD are very real injuries to the brain, not a sign of mental weakness. Changes to the brain from mild TBI or PTSD — whether structural, functional, chemical or cognitive — are treatable and rarely permanent.

Through our research at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas and our translational programs at the Brain Performance Institute, we have helped veterans with PTSD and TBI improve their brain function, regain cognitive losses and reduce the depressive and stress-related symptoms that interfere with daily functioning.

Following training, participants show significant cognitive improvements in advanced reasoning, memory and problem-solving and in regulating their moods. They also see benefits in other areas such as managing finances, maintaining a home and retaining a job.

With the help of a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense, we are also testing an innovative treatment for PTSD that includes a combination of magnetic stimulation therapy to minimize a person's physiological response to fearful memories and a behavioral therapy treatment designed to give those with PTSD a new way to handle distressing thoughts.

Veterans and their family members need to know their life still has purpose and does not have to end in tragedy. Our research shows there is real, science-based hope for veterans suffering from TBI and PTSD. We applaud those Members of Congress who are attempting to improve care and prevent suicides through their support of the SAV Act, and look forward to a brighter future for the service members who have selflessly sacrificed their time — and health — on our behalf.

Chapman, Ph.D. is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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